What to do when your child prefers one parent

It can come as a shock when your toddler tells you to go away. Learn how to manage the situation.

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When my firstborn was a toddler, he preferred his father’s attentions over mine. My husband and I were both holding full-time jobs then, and spent time as a family on weekends.

During outings, my son favoured his dad for company and started fussing whenever I tried to take over. Once, when I tried to pose for a photo with him in his pram in front of the colourful parrots’ aviary at the Jurong Bird Park, he ducked.

I shrugged it off as I thought that he preferred the parent of the same sex as his playmate, or perhaps it was because I was quite a klutz caring for him compared to his main caregiver ― his devoted paternal grandmother, who is also a very competent homemaker.

Explains Cheryl Ong, a senior psychologist at the Child Development Unit, National University Hospital, “Toddlers are going through the stage of growth where they are developing their sense of independence, but they are also becoming increasingly aware of the world and developing fears.

“It is fascinating for toddlers to try to see whether they can control different aspects of their environment. So, they make their preferences known for their food, clothes, toys, and yes, people, too.”

“It is fascinating for them to try to see whether they can control different aspects of their environment. So, they make their preferences known for their food, clothes, toys, and yes, people, too.”

Ong shares that her own 2-year-old son currently prefers her and would more likely call her when he is in distress, or becomes upset if she does not go out with him and daddy.

Mother of two Teo Wy Yenn had the same experience with her firstborn son, who preferred her over her husband when he was younger. As she was a stay-at-home mum during the first few years, she had spent more time bonding with him over trips to the playground, compared to her husband, even though he is a hands-on dad.

Explains Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness, “From birth, children form attachments to the adults in their life. The attachment is usually strongest with their mothers as mothers breastfeed, care for and spend the most time with their children. As such, toddlers will have the tendency to prefer their mothers.”

Familiarity and temperament

Toddlers are more attached to their main caregivers as they are used to their ways of doing things such as bathing and feeding.

They also prefer their main caregivers when they need comforting as they feel fearful more frequently during this phase as well, Ong points out.

Other than the amount of time spent together, some toddlers prefer one parent who matches his or her temperament.

Ong says, “For example, a child with a slow-to-warm temperament may prefer a parent who is calm and gentle, rather than an outgoing and dominant one. Surprisingly, most adults do not know how to play with young children!”
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Parenting takes teamwork

It is important to recognise that children benefit when both parents are involved in their lives, Ong notes. This does not mean that both parents need to spend an equal amount of time with the child, but to take the effort to get to know the child, and spend some quality time regularly.

Some parents may find it tough to let go and hand over the reins to the other parent. So, take small steps, for instance, the less-preferred parent can supervise playtime or a simple routine in the presence of the preferred parent. Later, he or she can take over for a short period of time ― over time, he or she can handle a daily routine.

“The best approach is for both parents to spend quality time with the child doing fun activities, thereby improving both the bonding between parent and child, and also between the spouses.”

Tips for both parents

Ong advises that the preferred parent shares and shows how he or she plays and carries out routines for the child, as well as addresses any fears and also how to encourage junior.

The less-preferred parent can start by bringing their child on a short trip to the nearby store for a treat, or sit on the floor with your child to watch them play, or join him or her to play for a while.

Ong suggests, “You can pick up ideas from your spouse or just follow your child’s lead! Besides learning about your child’s specific preferences in routines, recognise that your child’s temperament may be very different from yours, and try to adjust your style to match his.”

A phase junior goes through

Playing favourites is actually a sign of your offspring’s emotional and cognitive growth. This helps your child explore relationships and intimacy, exercise their decision-making skills, and assert their independence.

Dr Lim points out that it is unhealthy for parents to start competing for the attention of the child and to be ‘more needed’.

“The best approach is for both parents to spend quality time with the child doing fun activities, thereby improving both the bonding between parent and child, and also between the spouses. As the child grows older, he or she becomes more independent and such preferences and tendencies will become irrelevant,” he adds.

Ong notes that it’s possible that the problem will dissipate as the toddler grows older, as long as the other parent continues to spend time with them. In fact, sometimes, as children grow older, their preferences change, and they might find a common interest with the other parent.

Meanwhile, her husband continues to be actively involved in caring for their son, and handles the night-time routine.

She says, “Although he used to not know how to play with young kids, we watch and learn together. Nowadays, as our son grows older, my husband also engages in a lot of rough-and-tumble play with our son that I can’t keep up with!”

Photos: iStock

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